Thursday, June 16, 2011

"I" robot

A couple of new entries call for an update to the Great Presidential Pronoun Count.

More recent but less interesting is an entry from Cal Thomas, who's more or less simply regurgitating the standard trope about frequency of first-person pronouns:

In his parliamentary speech, which began with herald trumpets announcing his arrival (appropriate since Obama frequently toots his own horn by overdoing the personal pronouns "I" and "me") the president spoke favorably of Adam Smith, the patron saint of economic conservatives.

That's basically just a random elbow thrown at the "arrogance" theme, which apparently isn't going to go away regardless of what sort of ceremonial rituals normally go along with that pesky head-of-state thing. But there's another take from last month as well, and this one's more interesting because it introduces yet another unrelated theoretical argument for the evidence it doesn't bother to measure. Take it away, Victor Davis Hanson, national security and military history guru for National Review Online:

Here are a few excerpts from President Obama’s speech on Sunday night* about the killing of Osama bin Laden.

“Tonight, I can report . . . And so shortly after taking office, I directed Leon Panetta . . . I was briefed on a possible lead to bin Laden . . . I met repeatedly with my national security team . . . I determined that we had enough intelligence to take action. . . . Today, at my direction . . . I’ve made clear . . . Over the years, I’ve repeatedly made clear . . . Tonight, I called President Zardari . . . and my team has also spoken. . .These efforts weigh on me every time I, as Commander-in-Chief . . . Finally, let me say to the families . . . I know that it has, at times, frayed. . . .”

Well, you can see what's coming: a presentation of something that looks like empirical evidence, only without (a) measuring the things you're counting, (b) comparing such a count to some similar count that might support the relevance of your claim, or (c) credibly explaining some larger construct that your evidence -- should you measure it -- might fit. (Promotional value aside, Mark Liberman's update here is a concise explanation of the problem.) Wonder what sort of perspective Dr. Hanson will bring?

Most of these first-person pronouns could have been replaced by either the first-person plural (our, we) or proper nouns (the United States, America). But they reflect a now well-known Obama trait of personalizing the presidency.

Bullshit and question-begging, respectively. Self-anointed experts make equally bogus  arguments about the presence or absence of first-person plural pronouns in political speech, and we already know what the National Review thinks about Obama's use of "we," because Charles Krauthammer has analyzed it for us. It's technically true that the singular "could have been replaced" by the plural, but since modern presidents seem to use the singular pronoun regularly in describing their decisions on the use of armed force, it's hard to see why Obama would risk the screams from the peanut gallery by switching to the royal "we."

The question-begging part is the "now well-known Obama trait." There are several ways of looking at "personalizing the presidency." One reflects the general concentration of power on the executive in the post-1947 "national security state." A second is the general concentration of press attention on the executive. Every president of my working lifetime has taken advantage of it when possible and been victimized by it other times. It might be possible to build a good operational definition of "personalizing," but I don't see any reason to predict in advance that one president would initiate it more or less than any others.

The problem of first-personalizing national security is twofold. One, it is not consistent. Good news is reported* by Obama in terms of “I”; bad news is delivered as “reset,” “the previous administration,” “in the past”: All good things abroad are due to Obama himself; all bad things are still the blowback from George W. Bush.

We now have three official explanations for the (unsubstantiated, to the extent it isn't patently false) overindulgence in "I" by the president: Rampant narcissism, "campaign mode" and personalization. And pronoun-counting aside, we also have a new empirical claim. Does it have any evidence to support it, or is Dr. Hanson just making it up because it seems like it ought to be true? If it's personalizing to take credit, why isn't it personalizing to assign blame?

That gets us to a third sort of personalizing: Is there some agent out there that actually is responsible for associating a particular executive more or less closely with events that happen under his purview? Well, who's "personalizing" border policy when the top story four days after the fact is:

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer wasn't laughing when President Obama stood at the U.S.-Mexico border Tuesday and joked that Republican lawmakers who won't support a sweeping overhaul of the immigration system until the border is secured won't be happy until they get a moat with alligators along the border.

"I think he should get back to business being the president of the United States," Brewer told Fox News on Saturday.

That's the third of the items shown at top; the rest are from a not-too-random dip in the files for especially personalized accounts. But images aren't essential to personalizing policy; here are some reader comments from a 7-graf story, the FBI's reported decision not to join in in a terrorism prosecution, in which Obama is never named:

The FBI boss (Obama) only want cases that he can take credit for so he can use same to get reelected.  This is a NYPD case.  Obama will get no credit so just drop the charges.

According to our fearless leader.  Nobody should be mad at us anymore.  He went around the world apologizing for us.  Hey Blobama!!  Your apology tour didnt work very well!!!

obama to FBI, "Let my people go".

That's clearly personalized. I'll go Dr. Hanson one better and say it's been Goldsteinized. But it's hard to see how someone purporting to be a rational adult could contend that Obama is the one personalizing his presidency here.

* Yeah, sorry, this one fell behind the sofa for a month.
** At least he isn't misidentifying the passive voice and blaming someone else for it.

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